Parties across the political spectrum in Japan are still grappling with the multifaceted legacy of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, even one year after his untimely death. Abe was known as a charismatic politician who fearlessly pursued conservative causes while aiming to restore Japan’s standing in the international arena. However, his tenure also drew criticism for his tight control over the bureaucracy and attempts to dismantle Japan’s postwar pacifism.
For Abe’s supporters, his policies and vision represented a significant step forward. Hiroshige Seko, the Liberal Democratic Party’s Upper House secretary-general and a key figure in selecting new leadership within Abe’s former faction, emphasized that the direction set by Abe does not require major changes. Seko, who worked closely with Abe during his terms as prime minister, including his role as deputy chief Cabinet secretary and economy minister, believes that Abe’s goals in constitutional revision, economic policy, and national security were valid and should be continued.
While Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has attempted to set his own course with his “new capitalism” approach, the influence of Abenomics, Abe’s economic policy, continues to loom large. The Bank of Japan has maintained its ultraeasy monetary policy, and the stock market has experienced notable growth despite modest economic gains.
However, the conservative camp is facing challenges in areas that resonate with their voter base. Constitutional revision, one of Abe’s longstanding ambitions, has lost momentum under Kishida’s leadership, who hails from an anti-revisionist tradition within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Despite pro-revision forces holding a majority in parliament, the public debate on amending Article 9 of the Constitution, which concerns the legal status of the Self-Defense Forces, has not gained widespread traction.
Moreover, conservatives have encountered difficulties in effectively communicating their social policies. The recently approved LGBTQ bill, for instance, sparked internal disagreements within the conservative wing of the LDP. While some concessions were made, the approved version of the bill represents a minor victory for conservatives. Nonetheless, the absence of a prominent figure to fill Abe’s shoes and effectively lead the conservative camp weighs heavily on the future of Japanese politics.
Similarly, the liberal opposition faces its own challenges. The departure of Abe, who acted as a unifying target for the opposition, has diminished their cohesion. Additionally, with Kishida, a more dovish politician, assuming power, the liberal opposition’s fortunes have changed. Banri Kaieda, a veteran lawmaker from the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), acknowledges that it was easier for the opposition to present itself as a credible alternative to the LDP during Abe’s tenure. However, they now struggle to challenge the “ghost” of Abe and his political legacy.
The left-wing opposition camp is yet to find a way to appeal to voters with its distinct policies following Abe’s passing. In recent regional elections, both the CDP and the Japanese Communist Party underperformed. Plans to form a united front for the next general election are still being discussed. Furthermore, recent geopolitical developments, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, have shifted public perceptions on security and energy policies, creating additional challenges for the opposition.
A year after Shinzo Abe’s death, his influence on Japan’s political landscape remains significant. Regardless of the political leaning, Abe’s legacy continues to shape the policies and direction of the country. The absence of a strong leader capable of bridging political divides and reaching compromises exacerbates the polarization between conservatives and liberals. The future of Japanese politics remains uncertain as the search for a successor to Abe continues.